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Cop26 diaries: Best last hope?

Our guest diarist considers which nations have been stepping up to these negotiations.

By Julie-Anne Richards

There’s been a lot of hype ahead of this Cop: that it is our last chance to keep 1.5ºC – and a planet we can survive and thrive on – alive. As someone who has been to 15 of these rodeos before, Cop26 opens with a lot of expectations, and a surprising amount of hope. 

A significant portion of this hope comes from developing countries stepping up to the challenge that climate change presents. 

In this moment, and at this Cop, it really does feel like the old developed/developing country animosity is being overcome. But, at the moment, it’s primarily being overcome from the developing country side.

The ramp up to Cop26 was steep. Starting from an extremely low ambition, the US doubled its 2030 pledge to 50–52 per cent, the UK increased its 2030 pledge to a notable 68 per cent, and other countries stepped up their ambition as well: the European Union, Japan, South Korea and others. And while China’s Xi Jinping has gotten a lot of flack, with some seeing it as a missed opportunity to demonstrate ambition, the goals to peak emissions by 2030 and reach net zero before 2060 made it clear that China is committed to ending the use of fossil fuels – no mean feat for the manufacturing centre of the world, and a commitment of utmost importance as the largest-emitting country.

The second day of Cop26 saw India’s Prime Minister Modi commit India to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and net zero by 2070 – in the absence of any support from rich countries. This is India calling time on fossil fuels, demonstrating a willingness to step up to the climate challenge, and making a significant contribution to global efforts. With support from rich countries, it should be possible for India to ramp its ambition even higher.

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It is, however, the least wealthy and most vulnerable countries that are leading the world in climate action. Gambia is the only country with a climate plan that is compliant with the Paris Agreement pledge to keep warming to 1.5ºC. Countries rated as next best by Climate Action Tracker include Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal and Nigeria. Only one rich country makes it into this list: the UK. 

Rich countries are still dragging their heels – firstly on their own ambition at home. While some countries have done a stellar job, almost all of them are not yet ambitious enough. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said, commitments so far are welcome but “drops in a rapidly warming ocean”. For instance, my prime minister, Scott Morrison, has failed in his responsibility to increase Australia’s ambition – he has kept our 2030 pledge at less than half of allies the US and the UK. And Australia’s 2050 pledge includes a heavy emphasis on unproven technology aimed at keeping fossil fuels viable, with few policies, no financial signal, and no plans for an orderly and just phase-out of coal and gas. This is a strange position to take for a country that is suffering ever worsening droughts, fires and heatwaves. 

Secondly, the finance rich countries have provided is tiny compared to the needs of developing countries. Climate finance from the countries that have profited while causing the climate crisis is essential to keep 1.5ºC within reach. While some countries – for instance, the US, Japan, Ireland and Norway – have stepped up their finance ahead of Cop26, the overall picture is inadequate. The UK has committed more, but in the context of a shrinking overall aid budget – just when developing countries need help with both Covid-19 and climate-affected economies – it is just not credible.

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This finance is needed for two things. Firstly, to help with the closing of coal plants and replacing them with renewables; to help communities to transition to new, cleaner industries; to retool industry and households with low-pollution alternatives; and to build public transport systems and the like. The recent announcement of $8.5bn of support for South Africa to transition from coal, from the US, the EU and the UK, is a good example. Secondly, finance is urgently needed for countries and communities facing the impacts of climate change – helping them to build more resiliently and adapt to climate change circumstances, and providing financial support for those on the front line of the worst impacts: increasingly devastating storms, slowly and irrevocably worsening droughts, and sea level rises. This loss and damage support will be an essential outcome from Cop26.

Even by the very generous method the OECD uses to judge climate finance, rich countries have failed to reach the goal they set for themselves in 2009 of providing $100bn by 2020, at best leveraging $80bn this year – a target that pales in comparison with what is required, with African countries estimating finance needs at $1.3trn by 2030. The Covid-19 crisis demonstrates that governments can mobilise huge funds when faced with an emergency. Climate change is the biggest emergency we are going to face – now is the time.  

If Glasgow overcomes these shortfalls, there is the foreshadowing of a positive path from Glasgow, one that keeps 1.5ºC alive and that prioritises vulnerable people on the front line of impacts. 

The reforming of the High Ambition Coalition from Paris, led by the Marshall Islands and with the US rejoining in the last few days, is hugely significant. It has outlined a package for more ambitious mitigation action, ending coal power, delivering on needed climate finance and putting in place a plan to address the worst impacts of climate change. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, headed by Bangladesh with 48 of the most vulnerable countries as members, has likewise proposed a Climate Emergency Pact for Glasgow – and was joined by business leaders in its call. 

The spirit of collaboration can be seen in the many and varied pacts and alliances launching proposals at Glasgow – pledges on methane, ending oil and gas, powering past coal. All of which signal that the world is getting serious about phasing out fossil fuels. And, in a sign of the new worlds in front of us, India and the UK announced a new fund, IRIS, that will support small island states as part of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), to “develop resilient, sustainable infrastructure that can withstand climate shocks, protecting lives and livelihoods”.

What was it that Arandhati Roy said? “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Glasgow might just be the opportunity for her to inch a little closer.

Julie-Anne Richards is executive director of Climate Action Network Australia

Cop26 diaries are a series of personal insights from people attending the Cop negotiations in Glasgow.

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